The Church Catechism Broke into Short Questions (1732)

There are a number of different and interesting debates we can have about early modern female book ownership, many of which have been presented here over the last two years by the team (and yes, we’ve celebrated our two year anniversary in early December). Imagine, then, the levels of intrigue and excitement when we add the rare inclusion of sketches or doodles into the mix!

The anonymously composed The Church Catechism Broke into Short Questions, housed at Armagh Robinson Library, offers a fascinating insight into the ways books were used. It includes the names of two female readers – ‘Ms Dogson’ and Cortilia Garston – suggesting that the book was not owned by the individuals concerned but probably used for a collective group, like a text book for pupils. Interestingly, the dates are recorded exactly a year apart: Dogson wrote her name on 20 July 1739, while Cortilia added her details the following year. It was almost as if they were attending some religious summer school.

‘Cortilia Garston her Book, July the 20th 1740 / Ms Dogson hor Book July xxth 1739′

This seems increasingly likely when examining the book’s content. Published in Dublin in 1732, The Church Catechism marked the beginning of a sustained period of catechising across religious denominations in Britain and Ireland. It was composed for children and adolescents. Indeed, such was its popularity that John Wesley subsequently published an amended version entitled Instructions for Children (Dublin, 1744) with the intent of making available a simpler version so younger readers could engage more with the text and its content.

As Mary Clare Martin contends: ‘catechising played an important part in domestic religious education in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries … [Not only did it involve] household worship (which could be conducted by women) but also relationships between siblings. It demonstrates that catechizing could provide opportunities for asking questions and spending ‘quality time’ with parents and / or children, rather than embodying an alienating form of rote-learning.’

So works like The Church Catechism opened up new roles for women; it created a platform to bring them closer to God in a private setting while simultaneously reinforcing their piety in a society where religion dominated so many aspects of life. More importantly, it enabled women have greater influence in the domestic setting by leading prayers and strengthening family bonds.

But how did children or adolescents react to that supposed ‘quality time’? Catechetical books weren’t exactly riveting reading! What’s particularly striking about the example here is the inclusion of doodle sketched by one of the female readers, offering a brilliant insight into how the book was received.

The rough drawing presents an individual with an enlarged head, rolled eye, and distinctive hair. It may have been a self-portrait of the bored young student. More likely, the image took aim at her uninspiring teacher because adjacent to the sketch is a name that is only partially visible: ‘Mis Too[k?]’. Was that the actual name of the teacher? Or did the mischievous pupil scribble ‘Miss Took’ as a play on words – as in ‘mistook’ – in reference to her strict religious instructor? Given how doodles are usually associated with boredom the latter argument seems to be the more compelling. At any rate, it captures a wonderful moment where a female book owner reveals her feelings about catechisms or at least the way in which the content was being taught.

Mis[s] Too[k] – the teacher?

But what of the sketcher’s identity? Why might we assume it to be a woman? Closer analysis of the drawing, together with the book ownership inscriptions, are revealing. Not only does the ink match those of Ms Dogson’s signature but there are also clear similarities in the way she writes the letters ‘m’, ‘s’ and ‘o’ beside the doodle, leaving little doubt as to who was the culprit. Perhaps John Wesley was right to make The Church Catechism simpler to read. Or perhaps Ms Dogson just didn’t see a future for herself in religious education.

Source: Image reproduced by kind permission of the Governors and Guardians of Armagh Robinson Library.

Further reading

Mary Clare Martin, ‘Catechizing at Home, 1740–1870: Instruction, Communication and Denomination, Studies in Church History, 55 (2019), pp. 256-273

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